By Eric S. Peterson
The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with West View Media.
Michael Clára, a former Salt Lake City School board member who used to represent the west side’s Precinct 2, will tell you and anyone that will listen that the east/west educational divide in Salt Lake City is a problem wrapped up in issues of wealth and income, language and race and lots of other issues people don’t often like to talk about.
He also will admit that his combative insistence on talking about these issues probably cost him his board seat, with his aggressive style rubbing voters wrong in the last election. The issues remain, however. Clára points to a time, when on the board, that he happened to visit two elementary schools – one on the west side and one on the east side and in both trips caught teachers reading the same book to their students. At the east-side school the teacher was leading a discussion about character and plot points to a group of third graders, on the west side the teacher and her students were talking about how they liked the color of the dress that the book’s character was wearing. Clára was struck by the realization that different teachers and students could be literally on the same page on different sides of town but nowhere near the same educational level.
“Most teachers will easily admit that it is night and day when you look at it from an occupational perspective,” Clara says. “When you go to the east side it’s a breeze, you go to the west side and it’s a whole different life.”
Education leaders are hoping recent reforms will help slow the cross-town flight of educators, but teacher turnover is a major issue west-side community leaders have long struggled with, and it’s easy to see why. Greater hurdles of poverty and language barriers tend to push teachers out more frequently to cushier gigs on the east side.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project analyzed the base salaries (not counting benefits) provided to elementary school teachers in the Salt Lake School District during the 2016-2017 school year. The data shows that elementary school teachers on the west side averaged $57,840 in salary compared to $64,437 for teachers on the east side.
District teachers all work on the same salary schedule, receiving increased compensation over time based on the number of years they’ve been on the job. The data does show some teachers on the west side with salaries above $70,000, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The east side draws, and keeps, experienced educators to teach in communities where fewer students struggle with English as a second language, and where the neighborhoods are richer. (Based on 2015 federal income data from the Salt Lake School District site, 87 percent of west side schools were low income.)
The data also shows how many more inexperienced teachers there are on the west side. For the 2016-2017 year the base salary for an elementary teacher was $39,954. Over all the west side, for teachers who taught the whole school year, 27.7 percent had salaries below $50,000 a year, compared to 12.8 percent of east-side elementary school teachers—nearly double the number of teachers with little to moderate experience.
On the high-end of the scale, 67.7 percent of east-side teachers made over $60,000 a year, compared to just 37.6 percent of west-side teachers.
The distribution of inexperienced teachers also hits some west-side schools harder than others. Backman Elementary, for example, had nearly one-third of its salaried teachers making under $45,000, meaning they were likely still fresh out of college.
The data shows an interesting picture, although an incomplete one. The numbers crunched, for example, only look at salaried teachers and does not include support staff like teacher coaches and paraprofessional teacher’s aides, many of whom work on the west side.
Elizabeth Tabish has taught group piano at Glendale Middle School through the Youth Enrichment Foundation for the past 13 years and says she’s found it incredibly rewarding but challenging. Tabish said she’s paid as a music teacher but also acts as a counselor and a mother, with those duties usually taking priority over sheet music.
While Tabish is proud to call the west side home, she also understands why teachers leave to go to the east side. Over the years she’s seen students tell teachers to shut up, ignore them, hurl things at them. “I’ve broken up hundreds of fights – boys, girls, parents,” Tabish said.
She believes that the greatest factor leading to teacher burnout comes from a lack of parental involvement. Whether parents are too busy working multiple jobs, or don’t understand how or why they should get involved in their child’s education, or they’re simply neglectful, it affects the students who, in turn, act out in class.
“It’s really hard dealing with discipline when you have a hard time getting hold of parents,” said Tabish.
For Heather Bennett, President of the Salt Lake City School Board the divide really isn’t about east versus west, it’s really a matter of Title 1 schools versus non-Title 1 schools. The distinction refers to schools that qualify for special federal funds based on low-income populations. She points out it’s not something unique to Utah’s capital but is an issue all across the country.
“Nationwide it’s harder to keep teachers for the long term in Title 1 schools, especially with the mandates of federal and state governments across the country that attempt to punish kids, punish schools and punish teachers for lower performance on standardized tests,” Bennett says. “It just exhausts teachers.”
Despite the clear demand that west side students need more experienced and qualified teachers, it’s not so easy for a school district to simply push more money into those positions. Agreements with teachers’ unions give educators agency to move to new positions and schools after they’ve cleared a three-year provisional period. That mobility is a strong advantage for the teacher’s union.
Michael Harman is a Utah representative for the National Education Association, and a west-sider himself who understands the challenges of teacher retention. But he said that the union has to be careful about negotiating for different salaries for different schools.
“We have to be careful not to have teachers competing against each other, because we represent all teachers,” Harman says. He says that teachers might be open to a discussion about different pay for more challenging educational environments, but there hasn’t been a strong desire among members on the subject. He says teachers are more interested in funding efforts like capping classroom sizes in Title 1 schools.
Harman looks to the Our Schools Now proposal, a ballot initiative to increase taxes to raise more than $700 million in education funding, as a means of keeping west side teachers in place by reducing classroom sizes and easing the difficulty of their work environment.
Tiffany Sandberg, School Board member for the west side’s Precinct 1, says union negotiations always mean approaching pay in terms of across-the-board compensation that doesn’t favor teachers on one side of I-15 over another. Though she also concedes compensation is not everything.
“There has to be merit behind it, we can’t just say ‘if you come to the west side we’re going to pay you more,’” Sandberg says. “It could just mean we’re attracting teachers that just want to be making more.”
Despite the challenge, educators have a lot to be excited about in recent reforms that they hope will in the near future translate into more teachers sticking around on the west side.
In the 2017 legislative session Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, passed House Bill 212, into law, granting teachers in high-poverty schools the ability to gain a $5,000 salary bonus for helping students meet key academic goals.
“Some teachers are really good at helping students grow,” Winder says of the educators he wanted to help out.
At the local district level Sandberg is also optimistic about popular west-side programs.
“One of the things I’ve been pushing for in helping to retain experienced teachers and just helping our students’ lives be much better is expanding our early childhood education,” Sandberg says. She points to the “Parents as Teachers” program that helps teach parents how to become teachers for their children as early as six months old, to not only help “foster a love of education” but also get parents more involved in their child’s education early on.
Bennett likewise points out that under the new tenure of District Superintendent Alexa Cunningham the district has succeeded in getting more vice principals hired for Title 1 schools.
Indeed, analysis of 2016-2017 compensation showed 18 administrators at east side schools that averaged $90,409 in salary compared to 26 administrators for west side schools that averaged $91,971 in salary.
Bennett also notes that the Salt Lake City School District was the only school district in the state to gain legislative funding for a special grant to hire mentors for its new teachers.
“This last year the grant ended, but for the coming year we were able to fund it ourselves,” Bennett says. Nevertheless, there are always more needs, and especially with early childhood services Bennett and Sandberg hope more funding could be found to help such crucial interventions in children’s lives.
But both also believe in and are inspired by the passion of their principals and educators.
Bennett points to Backman Elementary, a school in Rose Park with a high index of challenges, but also one with dance classes and innovative special-education programming, a family-engagement coordinator and a stellar principal, among other advantages.
Backman’s principal Heather Newell has a “fabulous team,” Bennett says, but even still she’s had to hire 50 teachers in the space of four years. As shocking as that is, Bennett says it’s also about getting the right teachers to fill the classrooms.
“You don’t necessarily want to keep everyone that comes around just to say ‘our retention stats are good,’” Bennett says.
“I would defy anyone to go into that school and not see that it’s a wonderful place and that good things are happening there,” Bennett says.
For Tabish, teaching west side students, challenges and all, is her passion.
“I wholeheartedly love my students the same way I love my own children. I can say that without any hesitation and my students know this,” said Tabish.